Abbas faces dilemma on Israel talks

By Tobias Buck in Jericho, Financial Times – 28 July 2010

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, would be “totally undermined” if he agreed to hold direct peace talks with Israel under present circumstances, according to one of his senior officials.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, said that Mr Abbas had already risked his reputation by starting indirect negotiations with Israel through a US mediator. “He told his people in April: ‘I have received a letter from the American administration asking me to engage in proximity talks.’ He urged the people to give him a chance and he urged the Arabs to give him a chance. Now people ask him: can you show us progress?”

Mr Erekat told the Financial Times in Jericho that Mr Abbas “would be totally undermined” if he now agreed to move to direct talks without a change in Israeli policy. “I don’t think he [Mr Abbas] is capable of doing that.”

The Palestinian leadership is under strong pressure from both Israel and the US to start direct talks before September when a partial Israeli freeze on settlement building in the occupied West Bank runs out. Washington is keen to show diplomatic progress, hoping that direct talks would make it easier for the Israeli government to prolong the freeze.

Mr Erekat stressed that the Palestinians were ready in principle for face-to-face negotiations. But he said that Israel first had to stop building “new housing units” in Jewish settlements in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The present partial freeze on settlement construction does not apply to East Jerusalem.

Mr Erekat added: “This is not a condition [for talks to start], this is an Israeli obligation.”

Mr Erekat also chided Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. “Netanyahu is saying he wants talks, but he is doing everything on the ground to make it impossible,” he said. “Netanyahu had a choice: settlements or peace. He chose settlements.”

Mr Erekat cited recent demolitions of Palestinian homes and continued construction in Jewish settlements as obstacles to direct negotiations. The Palestinians would start such talks only if there were agreement on “clear terms of reference”. These included an Israeli acknowledgement that the goal was a Palestinian state “along” the boundaries before the Six Day war of 1967 “with agreed land swaps”.

Mr Erekat asked: “Who has ever heard of negotiations without an agenda and without terms of reference?” He added: “You don’t have to be a genius to realise that if you go to a meeting without an agenda, you will fail.”

However, Mr Erekat also admitted that the Palestinian leadership faced a dilemma. The US and Israel are placing them under strong pressure to join direct talks, while the Palestinian public are generally disenchanted with the entire diplomatic process.

“We are in a situation where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. There is a cost if we agree [to direct talks] and a cost if we don’t,” said Mr Erekat.

Mr Erekat stressed the dismay among ordinary Palestinians over the lack of diplomatic progress. Supporters of a two-state solution like himself were losing legitimacy, he added.

If efforts to revive bilateral peace talks fail, the Palestinians intend to ask the UN to recognise an independent state. “If we don’t get anywhere in the proximity talks, then we will seek out the UN Security Council,” said Mr Erekat. “We want them to call upon all members who believe in a two-state solution to recognise a state of Palestine in the borders of 1967, and to call for direct talks on that basis.”

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